What the Hitch?

23 Sep

Good evening. Is the world ready for a movie about the making of Psycho starring Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins as legendary film director, Alfred Hitchcock? Fox Searchlight seems to think so; moreover, the studio believes it has what could be a major Oscar contender on its hands.

So, there I was 2-3 days ago, perusing the latest entertainment news on google when I saw a headline that made me do a double take. Apparently,  Fox Searchlight Pictures is jumping into this year’s Oscar race by more or less rush-releasing Hitchcock into theatres as early as November.  Well, what the heck?

This new movie is not necessarily a biography of legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock. Instead, it purports to be a behind-the-scenes dramatization of the making of 1960’s convention-shattering suspense classic, Psycho.  Hmmm…well, I guess the first among many questions I had was, “Who is playing Hitchcock?” Answer: Anthony Hopkins.  Stop snickering. I get it. The man who won an Oscar for playing Hannibal the Cannibal in Silence of the Lambs is back on board as the master of the macabre.  How lovely would it be if no less than Jodie Foster, Hopkins’s Oscar winning Silence of the Lambs co-star,  had been cast as Janet Leigh, who played Psycho‘s unfortunate leading lady, Marion Crane–but, of course, Foster, approaching fiftyish is now much older than Leigh was at the time, so that’s not the best fit. Instead, Scarlett Johansson will assume the Leigh role, and that seems just about right. Leigh was in her early 30s when she made Psycho; Johansson is right at 28.  Not an exact match, but close enough. I can visualize a resemblance, and I don’t doubt Johansson’s talent. Btw: the new film’s makers have also apparently thought better than to cast Jamie Lee Curtis, Leigh’s daughter–a fetching and popular actress in her own right–in the film as well. Party-poopers.

My second question was,  “Why?” Why make a new movie about this particular slice of cinema genius in the first place?  Didn’t anybody learn anything a decade or so ago when Gus Van Sant decided to embark on a virtual scene for scene, line for line, shot by shot Psycho remake with Anne Heche as Marion and Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates, the seemingly nice mama’s boy turned crazed killer?  What about all those dreadful sequels in the 1980s?  Psycho, like The Silence of the Lambs and Carrie, is so complete and so enduring that it does not need to be second-guessed. I don’t need a re-creation of Psycho as long as I still have access to the original–and you know I do.

Left to Right: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and director Alfred Hitchcock on the set of 1954’s Rear Window, this movie fan’s absolute favorite Hitchcock film.

That noted, I’d rather see a movie about the making of Rear Window. You know, the logistics of designing, building, and shooting on that enormous set–most of which was constructed below street level on a studio soundstage–with its courtyard surrounded by a handful of walk-up apartment buildings, several of them featuring what appear to be fully functioning flats seemingly big enough to allow actors to walk around in–or more.  Dance-turned-actress Georgine Darcy, who played the stunning “Miss Torso” reportedly “lived all day” in her character’s dwelling, per the IMDb.  A film about Rear Window would also no doubt spotlight Hitchcock’s alleged fascination with magnificent Grace Kelly (the director reportedly told famed costume designer to treat Kelly as a piece of Dresden china), and that would also be cool for Johansson since she’s already done her version of Grace Kelly, via Rear Window specifically, in a 2008 Vanity Fair photo feature shot by Annie Leibovitz.

Of  course, we’ve all become so accustomed to Psycho that we almost take its genius for granted, meaning we forget just how daring it was in its day–and not just because of that shocking stabbing-in-the-shower scene.  Consider the following:

  • Marion Crane, the woman believed to be the protagonist, played by high-profile actress Janet Leigh, is first seen wearing a bra, clearly in the rushed afterglow of an afternoon romp in a hotel with her boyfriend.  This might not seem like a big deal now, but it was definitely unexpected in a movie starring a well-known leading lady from a top Hollywood director working for a major Hollywood studio.

    Scarlett Johnasson (l) and Javier Bardem (r) in Annie Liebowitz’s re-creation of Kelly and Stewart in Rear Window.

  • Also a biggie for the time was that Leigh’s Marion is actually seen flushing a toilet, virtually unheard of back in the day to put a camera in such close proximity to a commode if you can believe that. Imagine the story conference on that one.
  • Of course, more shocking than that is the fact that the character the audience believes is the film’s protagonist is killed roughly 45 minutes into the story. Shocking? You bet!
  • Then, of course, there’s that shower scene. Sure, we’ve seen a lot more violence in the 50 years since Psycho, but even though the shock of it has more to do with illusion, the power of suggestion, since the audience never sees a knife piercing any skin directly, it still packs a wallop because of the threat of danger and the feelings of being trapped and vulnerable, what with all those terrifying closeups–not to mention Bernard Hermann’s shrieking violins on the soundtrack. Even Janet Leigh famously vowed never to shower again after she saw the finished product.
  • Then there’s graphic artist Saul Bass’s long held–and long denied by almost anyone and everyone else associated with the movie, especially Leigh–claim that it was he, and not Hitchcock, who actually directed the shower scene.
  • Hitchcock shot the film in black and white partially as a cost-cutting measure but also because he thought the bloody shower scene might be too much in color–but that he did shoot the movie in black and white only contributes to its lore, as, again, Hitchcock was a major Hollywood player who had not shot a movie in black and white for several years at that point.
  • Furthermore, even though Psycho was indeed a Paramount production, it was famously filmed on the Universal lot (now a major tourist attraction), Hitchcock’s soon-to-be homebase as Psycho was his last offering under his contract with Paramount. Of course, there was no doubt some rumbling along the Paramount corridors since Hitchcock’s previous film, North by Northwest (1959), was actually an MGM picture. The suits at Paramount were probably not feeling the love as this low-budget black and white movie seemingly had nothing to offer.
  • Another piece of the film’s lore is that Hitchcock and/or the studio implemented a policy that no one would be admitted after the movie started. Can you imagine something like that in today’s consumerist society? Not bloody likely. Of course, there were also long lines of people eagerly waiting to get inside theatres once the picture was released and word-of-mouth spread like gangbusters, thereby increasing audience anticipation and fueling the hype.

Will the new ‘Hitchcock’ movie score as well or better with Oscar voters as 1960’s Psycho once did? The earlier film garnered four nominations including Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Janet Leigh); it was the director’s fifth and final nomination before being honored with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968. That Anthony Perkins (above) was  overlooked for a nod is one of the Academy’s greatest blunders. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and in the early 60s, honoring an actor for playing a crossdressing psychopath might have been more than Academy members could rationalize, yet Perkins clearly paved the way for Oscar voters to seriously consider the value of  Anthony Hopkins’s cold-blooded flesh-eater some 30 years later; moreover, sure, Perkins’s Norman Bates is one of cinema’s most memorable villains, second only to, again, Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, per the American Film Institute, but, of course, Perkins does not play Bates as a villain. Instead, he’s a seemingly kind if skittish young man, trying hard to maintain a calm exterior even though he’s clearly troubled. Audiences who’ve never seen Psycho, or have not read too much about it, almost feel sorry for him–at first–what with his gangly frame and “Aw shucks” demeanor.  Casting a good looking actor known for “sensitive” portrayals  (including a Best Supporting Actor nomination for 1956’s  Friendly Persuasion) was a brilliant move on Hitchcock’s part as it defied audience expectations, especially since the character was presented much differently, more stereotypically “bad,”  in the book upon which the film is based (older, heavier, balder). If you want to know just how good Perkins in the original, measure his greatness in it to the work in those sequels from the 1980s; meanwhile, Danny Peary tries to right the Academy’s wrong by awarding Perkins the “Alternate” Best Actor Oscar for 1960: “There have been countless portrayals of maniacs in movie history, but […] none was played with such skill and imagination, or got under our skins, haunted us, or made us care so much as Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates in Psycho.”

So, yes, I guess there’s enough material for a feature film, but I’d still prefer to watch a movie about the making of Rear Window or even Rope, Hitchcock’s first ever color film which unfolds in real-time with a series of long, virtually uninterrupted takes on a single set with movable walls, its homoerotic plot loosely based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case, but even though the possibility of watching such a movie intrigues me,  I’d probably rather just watch Rope, Rear Window, and Psycho for their own magic. Additionally, the Hitchcock DVDs offer enough features to fill in most of the details. Almost every item I reported in the above list comes straight from a documentary on the Psycho DVD.  A dramatization might be redundant–or worse.

Of course, Hitchcock could very well be a gamble that pays off handsomely for Fox Searchlight, again, the allegedly “indie” film branch of the Fox media empire. The Searchlight brand has had lots of pull with Oscar voters since its early days back in the mid 90s, beginning with 1997’s “surprise” Best Picture nominee The Full Monty and on up to a recent string of such Oscar nominated hits as Sideways (2004), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Juno (2007), Crazy Heart (2009), and Black Swan (2010)–those last two, of course, won Best Actress (Natalie Portman) and Best Actor (Jeff Bridges), respectively. Additionally, Black Swan was in line for the Best Picture Oscar that ultimately went to The King’s Speech.  In 2008, the company’s Slumdog Millionaire became not only a crowd pleasing hit, it also snatched away the top prize from the year’s most nominated flick, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Of course, this viewer didn’t care too much for either of those offerings, but I digress. On the other hand, last year, Searchlight’s well regarded The Descendants, starring George Clooney, reaped a handful of nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, but it snagged only one prize (for Best Adapted Screenplay, shared by director Alexander Payne and co-writers, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash). If you’ll recall, the Academy was instead going gaga for movies about movies, such as The Artist and My Week with Marilyn, both of them from the Weinstein company (not to mention Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, the year’s most nominated offering, which was preoccupied with France’s silent film innovator, Georges Méliès).  Maybe the suits at Fox Searchlight want to somehow even the score by getting into the movies-about-movies game.

If for some reason you have not yet caught up with Anthony Hopkins’s magnificent performances in a pair of 1993 prestige offerings, you would do well to make the investment. In The Remains of the Day (above), he plays an impeccably civilized butler whose reluctance to give into his feelings becomes his sad undoing. As C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, he portrays a man whose recognition of his feelings becomes his salvation. Though Oscar nominated only for The Remains of the Day, Hopkins was honored by such groups as the Los Angeles Film Critics and the National Board of Review for both performances.  He lost the Oscar, not necessarily undeservedly, to Tom Hanks’s powerful turn in Philadelphia. Interestingly, Hopkins’s  female co-stars in each  of those 1993 films, Emma Thompson and Debra Winger respectively, were  nominated for Best Actress by their peers in the Academy. Some feat, that.

Positioning Anthony Hopkins, as noted, a previous Oscar winner, among the Best Actor hopefuls is a bit of a risk. That race, at this early date, already seems dominated by the likes of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both in The Master, in addition to buzzworthy turns by the great John Hawkes in Sessions, the incomparable Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, and the never-before nominated Richard Gere in Arbitrage, along with Ben Affleck, doing double duty as actor and director with Argo and Bradley Cooper, recently earning raves at the Tornonto Film Festival for The Silver Linings Playbook (keeping in mind that such recent big Oscar winners as Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech also nabbed accolades at the Toronto fest).  So, there’s always that. On the other hand, Hopkins is Hopkins, and while he does seem like the ideal choice to play a paradoxical real-life figure such as Hitchcock, he could very well be a disaster. When Hopkins is good, as in Silence of the Lambs, he’s great–and sometimes, as in his back-to-back 1993 offerings, The Remains of the Day and Shadowlands, he’s brilliant, but, oh, just like the the late Laurence Olivier, when Hopkins is bad, he’s dreadful, and by dreadful I mean bombastic as evidenced by his turn as Captain Bligh in 1984’s unfortunate The Bounty (aka Mutiny on the Bounty), and even his ghastly re-creation of former President Richard Nixon (1995’s Nixon). To be fair, Hopkins was fighting an uphill battle in that one as he was working against the tangled, paranoid excesses of director Oliver Stone–and even at that, he still snagged an Oscar nomination, not surprising given Hollywood’s predisposition to loathe Nixon and believe the worst about him, thereby buying into Stone’s wretched vision. (I’m not defending the real Nixon at this late date, by the way; I just couldn’t stomach too much of Stone’s film. I think Frank Langella’s Oscar nominated turn in 2008’s Frost/Nixon comes closer to showing Nixon’s flawed humanity.) My fear is that Hopkins and the rest of the film will devolve into a campy mess that tries to turn Hitchcock into a madman, a monster, or  some kind of bumbling, if droll, idiot.  I also worry that Hopkin’s performance might be overwhelmed by whatever prosthetics are required for him to replicate Hitchcock’s familiar rotund, jowly, silhouette. That noted, I’m sure I’ll watch it unless the notices are dreadful.

Hitchcock is directed by Sacha Gervasi, who has little in the way of traditional feature films to his credit but who has had some success as a documentarian, most notably 2008’s Anvil: The Story of Anvil, for which Gervasi earned a Director’s Guild nomination.  I have high hopes for Johansson in this; after all, Leigh earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in Psycho, losing to Shirley Jones’s change-of-pace role in Elmer Gantry. I’ve actually had high hopes for Johansson for awhile. I thought she gave a performance worthy of awards consideration in 2005’s Match Point, but that did not happen though she snagged a Globe nod. Besides Johansson and Hopkins, the rest of the Hitchcock cast includes James D’Arcy (as Tony Perkins, the quirky, yet handsome, rising young actor given the role of a lifetime ) Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles, the former beauty queen who embarked on a successful acting career, briefly becoming a favorite of Hitchcock who cast her as Marion’s  suspicious sister),  Helen Mirren (as Alma Reville, the director’s wife and frequent collaborator), strapping newcomer Josh Yeo (as hunky John Gavin in the role of Marion’s commitment-shy stud-muffin), Toni Collett (as Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock’s real-life assistant),  Michael Wincott (as Ed Gein, of all people, the real-life serial killer upon whom writer Robert Bloch based his Psycho novel ),  Ralph Macchio (as screenwriter Joe Stefano), Wallace Langham (as Saul Bass, the innovative graphic artist who designed title sequences for Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Pyscho, among others),  Paul Schackman (as composer Bernard Hermann), Richard Chassler (as respected character actor–and future Oscar winner–Martin Balsam [1]), and Mary Anne McGarry (as influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper).

Meanwhile, poor Toby Jones, right? The versatile British born actor had the unfortunate luck of playing writer Truman Capote in a biopic that hit theatres a year after Philip Seymour’s Oscar winning turn in Capote. (See my own article from August 29, 2011.) Now, I’ve also learned that Jones will appear as Hitchcock in a telefilm based on the director’s growing obsession with glamorous model-actress Tippi Hedren while shooting The Birds, Hitchcock’s wildly popular follow-up to Psycho.  Of course, there’s no doubt that filming The Birds was fraught with logistical drama, if not outright peril. Could be interesting. Of course, for Jones the real peril is once again stepping into the shoes of a real-life legend only to be beat to the punch by a better known actor in a vehicle tailor made for awards consideration. What an unfortunate turn. I’m sure Hitchcock would be amused.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] – Best Supporting Actor for A Thousand Clowns (1965)


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